Digital disasters: crowdsourcing the railway accident

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Work on Britain’s railways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was nasty, brutish – and, for many, short. Understanding what happened in these cases and what measures were put in place to try to prevent such accidents has remained poorly historicised and largely invisible – often due to the much greater attention (at the time and in subsequent historical enquiry) paid to the passenger accident and the difficulty accessing details of worker accidents.

This chapter reclaims the railway worker accident, both empirically and methodologically, opening up new areas and approaches that challenge readers to take the insights offered and apply them to other aspects of transport and mobility history. It does so firstly by exploring railway employee deaths and injuries, outlining how railway work had a significant physical impact upon the workforce, and how the industry responded. Born of necessity, the industry came up with significant innovations in terms of labour management and accident prevention which were adopted not only by other workplaces but, in the case of safety education, spread throughout and shaped 20th-century British society fundamentally.

Secondly, the chapter explores the possibility of crowd-sourcing for transport and mobility history. It draws on ideas about co-production through initiatives such as ‘Zooniverse’: involving large numbers of the interested public, who contribute time and energy to work that would be too time-consuming for small numbers of academic researchers to do, and/or impossible for computers to do. This developing trend has so far left transport and mobility history largely untouched – but, as will be demonstrated, there is great potential.

This draws upon the ‘Railway Work, Life and Death’ pilot project, which involves volunteers in transcribing data contained in hard-to-access Board of Trade worker accident reports of the early twentieth century, to produce a database of accidents. The project helps make the data contained in the reports easily available and easily searchable, as well as providing new details about working conditions and the incidence of occupational casualty in one of the largest industries in the UK. This data, and the experience of running the project, informs the chapter, which offers observations on the possibilities of academic-amateur collaboration in researching transport and mobility history, as well as exploring the practical and intellectual issues surrounding co-production of research. As such, the chapter engages with recent trends by considering how the digital humanities might apply to transport and mobility history, and suggests methodological avenues that other projects in this field might usefully go down.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTransport and Its Place in History: Making the Connections
EditorsDavid Turner
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)978-0-815-39417-4, 978-1-351-18663-6
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2020


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